Home > Chains of Command(5)

Chains of Command(5)
Author: Marko Kloos


The bus comes to a slow stop in the middle of the mock-up colony town. The tailgate opens—not with the hydraulic whine of an actual drop ship hatch, but with the hissing of pneumatic cylinders—and the platoon charges out into the sunny April day, drill sergeants in the lead. I stay in the open tail hatch for a moment and watch their deployment. They split up into squads and fire teams and take up textbook covering positions. The data display on my visor shows the entire platoon fanning out and covering the area 360 degrees around the “drop ship.”

In a real battle deployment, I would be taking charge of First Squad as the senior platoon NCO. On field days, I used to do just that in the beginning, to get a feel of the recruits and my drill instructors. But once I was convinced that the drill sergeants had everything firmly in hand, I backed off and started supervising from a distance because I found that everyone deferred to my judgment too much. I’ve been in combat against the SRA and the Lankies, and two of my three drill instructors have not, so it’s a natural tendency, but both my boots and my sergeants need to be able to swim on their own. So while the platoon deploys around the fake colony town, I trot over to the training facility’s ops center, a small bunker right in the middle of the place. The computer recognizes my electronic signature and opens the armored hatch for me, and I step into the building.

The ops center is a small two-room structure, stuffed with holoscreens and computer consoles. There’s a short row of mesh-backed chairs designed for personnel in battle armor, and I drop into one and turn on the displays and consoles in front of me. The entire facility is lousy with optical and data sensors, and I can keep tabs on every member of the platoon from pretty much any angle. Their suit computers are tied in to the facility’s segregated TacLink network, and not only can I see and hear what they see and hear, but I can give them things to see as well. The installation is a giant simulator stage, and I control what goes on out there. If I want them to fight a quartet of SRA drop ships and a company of Russian marines, I can simulate them, and they will become real on their helmet displays and in their headsets. But this field exercise does not involve our old Sino-Russian enemies. They are geared to fight Lankies, so Lankies are what they’ll get today.

I check the tactical screen and open the squad leader channel.

“Squad leaders, prepare perimeter defense. Likely threat vector is one-eight-zero degrees.”

The squad sergeants toggle back their acknowledgments. The platoon elects to get up on the roof of the terraforming station, which rises twenty-five meters above the desert floor and offers excellent fields of fire. Against the SRA, elevated positions like that are too exposed to air attack or long-range precision fire, but against Lankies, you want to be able to see and shoot as far out as you can, because there’s not much room for error when engaging creatures who can cover a kilometer in less than a minute.

I check the visuals I’m feeding to the platoon—dark, rainy skies, a colony world in the middle of having its atmosphere’s CO2 content flipped with its oxygen content. The boots and their drill sergeants don’t know it, but the scenario I am letting them tackle today is a rehash of our First Contact with the Lankies, almost seven years ago on a faraway planet called Willoughby. Overhead, it’s a sunny day in the desert, but with their visors down and their armor suits controlling their individual climates, my boot platoon is on Willoughby right now, seeing what I want them to see and hearing what I want them to hear.

They all know it’s just a simulation, but I can see all of their heart rates climb considerably when I make the first Lanky step out of the squalls to the west and have it approach the terraformer in slow, thundering steps. Twenty-five meters of rain-slick skin the color of eggshells, spindly limbs that look like the thing shouldn’t even be able to propel itself on them, joints that bend all the wrong ways, to our Earth-biology knowledge. Even with the right weapons to fight them, they are intimidating opponents, something out of an old monster movie, and I shudder when I think about how utterly unprepared we were to fight them on that day—no idea of what was coming, and armed with weapons that were never designed to kill something of that size and toughness.

The platoon deploys on the rooftop in one long firing line, the new doctrine for fighting Lankies in stand-up battles. The squad leaders shout orders, and the squads take position in a reasonably efficient way for a bunch of kids who were rank civvies just eleven weeks ago. In a regular SI rifle platoon, Third Squad would be the heavy weapons squad, and they’d be setting up a pair of canister-fed autocannons on the flanks of the platoon, but our boot platoon doesn’t have training on that gear yet. Everyone has an M-90 semiautomatic anti-LHO rifle. LHO stands for “large hostile organism,” and it’s the new tactical shorthand for Lankies. As the simulated Lanky lumbers toward the mock-up terraforming station, thirty-three targeting lasers paint the incoming creature with a swarm of green dots visible only to helmet visor displays.

“All squads, on my mark,” Sergeant Fisher shouts. “Center mass shots. Don’t waste ammo. Three, two, one, fire!”

The platoon’s rifles all bark more or less as one, a stuttering drumroll of thundering reports. The new M-90s are shorter, lighter, fire faster, and are more effective than the old M-80 double rifles. They’re also much, much louder. At the last fraction of a second before the sergeant gives the fire command, I cheat a little and make the Lanky lower its head and cover most of its upper body with the large, bony, shield-like protuberance on its head. Thirty-three simulated explosive gas rounds fly out from the rooftop. Most of them shatter and ricochet off the Lanky’s cranial shield like pebbles thrown against a concrete wall. The Lanky bellows a wail, shakes its head, and keeps coming, undeterred. They have monstrously long strides when they’re in a hurry, easily ten meters to a step, and the three hundred meters between the terraforming building and the Lanky turn into two hundred before the platoon fires the next salvo.

This time, I let the Lanky walk into the defensive fire. At two hundred meters, the rifles’ ballistic computers can put the rounds into a sheet of paper that’s been folded over twice. The better part of three dozen rounds pepper the center of the Lanky’s mass, and the creature’s chest heaves out and explodes with a wet and muffled thump. The Lanky’s stride falters, and the thing collapses midstep, its body crashing to the ground in an ungraceful tangle of limbs. The platoon’s troopers send up a satisfied cheer.

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